Council sinks ‘landmark preservation’ measure

Official, members of public say proposal needs

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

Metuchen’s public debate over tearing down older homes and replacing them with new ones continues.

At last week’s meeting, the Borough Council unanimously approved an ordinance amending the portions of the municipal land use code that deal with architectural design standards for new homes and tree removal.

However, in a 4-2 vote, the council tabled an article contained in the ordinance which would have required developers to preserve landmark buildings present on the site of proposed developments.

Council members decided to remove the landmark preservation clause from consideration after officials and members of the public criticized the measure as being too weak.

The ordinance defined landmark buildings as "structure[s] having historical architectural, or cultural significance."

Council members Catherine Totin, Richard Dyas, Alan Grossman and Marion Price voted to table the article. Thomas Vahalla and Richard Weber voted against taking it out of the measure.

The issue of preserving landmark homes and in-fill development has come to the forefront since the razing of two historic homes in the Wildwood Park neighborhood, on Linden Avenue and East Chestnut Avenue, continues to be a distinct possibility.

Before opening the meeting to the public, Mayor Ed O’Brien informed those in attendance that the developer who has the properties under contract had taken out permits for oil tank removal and demolition on Dec. 15.

Officials and members of the public who spoke at last week’s meeting were, at times, contentious.

Former state Superior Court Judge Richard Plechner, who resides on Oak Avenue, began the public portion of the meeting by reading a letter from former governor Jim Florio and his wife, Lucinda Florio, in which they oppose the landmark preservation article because they felt it wasn’t strong enough.

The Florios live in a home on the corner of Linden and Chestnut avenues. The former governor has spoken out on the issue at previous meetings.

Al Mosmano, who resides on Linden Avenue, spoke in favor of the landmark preservation article.

"I want to save the house at 82 Linden Avenue," he said. "This article may not be perfect, but at least it gives us something to work with."

Suzanne Andrews, who lives on East Chestnut Avenue, felt the issue was larger than what was being presented.

"This is a town-wide issue, not a neighborhood issue," she said. "We need more of a community consensus before you pass this article."

Borough attorney David Frizell said that without a landmark preservation measure, the borough could be on a slippery slope.

"We’re playing chicken here," he said. "If this clause is tabled, these homes could be gone and never come back."

Nancy Zerbe, who resides on Rector Street and is the president of the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society, questioned how a structure would be designated a landmark.

"The term ‘landmark’ is so vague," she said. "There’s a lot of room for uncertainties. Who would be responsible for that designation?"

Officials told her that responsibility would fall to the Planning Board with help from an expert such as an architect or planner.

After hearing remarks from the public, Totin made a motion to table the article. She was joined by Dyas who said the officials should take time to study the landmark preservation article and "give it more teeth."

O’Brien informed the crowd that "if the [landmark preservation] article is tabled, it has to be reintroduced from scratch sometime in 2004."

O’Brien also pointed out that the current population of Metuchen is about the same as it was 1955.

"I’m letting everyone know this to make a point," he said. "We’re not developing willy-nilly despite accusations to the contrary."

Vahalla weighed in for the landmark preservation measure.

"I’m against tabling it because without it, one or both houses will be gone," he said. "We need the [landmark preservation] article as a tool."

Plechner suggested the formation of a citizens’ committee to work in tandem with the council to deal with the landmark issue.

The mayor and council members were open to the idea.

"I’ll meet with anyone anytime," said O’Brien. "The council is interested in one objective — preserving the character of Metuchen’s neighborhoods."